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Ballet Review: A Philistine Goes to Swan Lake

Aug 22, 2013 Theatre

Swan Lake

Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Civic

August 21, 2013


The first things you notice are the asses. The men are wearing these paper thin tights which show up every sinew, and cling to the posterior for dear life. It’s disconcerting and disheartening* , but soon enough you figure out that they need all that junk to power them through the routine.

Next it’s the set. There are three, the first covering the opening two acts, while acts III and IV get their own. I would characterise them, respectively, as ‘Lord of the Rings-y’; ‘Harry Potter-esque’; and, finally, ‘Game of Thrones-ish’. The first had this rinky dink ye olde village faire vibe, which gelled perfectly with the Legend of Zelda-style outfits.

It was, truth be told, a rough start. My two lifetime experiences of ballet visuals were, in order, Black Swan (the movie) and a scene in Kanye West’s magnificently unhinged Runaway short film. I’ve watched the latter three times, loved the mania of that set piece, and it was one of my two key motivators for coming along tonight.

The latter was the way Remnick writes about ballet in Lenin’s Tomb and that terrific Scandal at the Bolshoi Theatre’ feature. In Russia the Bolshoi seems like a place where the nation’s sense of doom is given romantic expression. I was curious about how it would play out in the slightly less afflicted climes of New Zealand.

The crowd were largely – but by no means exclusively – older, whiter and female-r. If I had to characterise the general feeling in the place it would be as akin to how you’d imagine a rally in favour of the GCSB bill. We are the 11%.

Not in a bad way! Just that this crowd was the epitome of what we mean when we talk about the establishment. You don’t often see them gathered en masse in the wild. Or at least I don’t. They were lovely, in truth. The woman who gave me my tickets said it was wonderful to meet me. I don’t think anyone’s ever thought that before, let alone said it so warmly. Everyone gets out of your way and walks slowly, deliberately. Except this one guy who managed to elbow me and my pregnant wife on the way to the bathroom. I’m sure he was genuinely busting though.

Back to the ballet. As I said, it started rough. After being told to turn off our phones and pagers, the curtain rose. Once you got past the asses, and the set, you focused on the performers. The costumes were pretty ludicrous, sort of hi-gloss peasantwear, which accentuated the sense that you were watching early rehearsals for a Beyoncé video with outfits designed by Mumford & Sons.

Act I was at some kind of party, I think. Basically the peasants were acting out something like competitive dance, a la Step Up 2: The Streets. All the while, though, this creepy Duke watched, drinking and eyeing up the maidens.

He became the comic relief. There was some good stuff when he got loaded enough to try and throw down with the young kids, and had to be removed by the fool. In time, some vague outline of ballet’s appeal starts to present itself. Much as I’m hopelessly devoted to pop music**, ballet has been around for 500 years or something. There must be something in it. The first thing I notice is to do with Tchaikovsky’s outrageously good score. Each bob and weave of its emotional arc feels like its set in motion by the dance. Where pop music dancers appear slave to the beat, ballet dancers look like they’re conducting the music. It’s cool.

The first scene dissolves, and we’re into the meat of the thing. I couldn’t really tell you what happens to the narrative from here. But darkness descends and 16 ballerinas (the swans) come out, and we finally get some tutus. Say what you want about tutus, but they’re an extremely functional garment. In Act I the woman are drowning under these over-demure milkmaid dresses. When the tutus come out it reveals the grace and artistry. Backstage they start to deploy special effects, chiefly dry ice and faux-lightning which, in the still unutterably gorgeous interior of the Civic, is far more impactful than you might imagine.

We break for an intermission, then return to the Harry Potter set. It’s a big contrast to the benignly bucolic first, an ornate Griffindor king’s court. A set of bored royal-types surround a a central stage, where (surprise!) another dance-off ensues. The strings ramp up from Mad Men theme-without-the-breakbeat to Rednex-without-the-house-beat.

It’s intense. You get the feeling the peasants have somehow been selected to dance for the king. Is that an honour? Or extremely dangerous? Probably both. He’s looking bored. That skeezy duke is there, probably on it again.

Two guys, one from the village, and a second with batwings, are battling over the same woman. I can understand why. She is an extraordinarily good dancer. At this point the crowd in the cheap seats up top starts screaming at every climactic moment, which is great. At times, down in the stalls, it can feel a little too mannered.

Another intermission. Honestly, about 20 minutes after the first. Bladder issues for the pensioners? I don’t know. It’s odd. The next set is a spooky forest, with warships looming in the background. What plays out in front is by far the strongest dancing of the set. Multiple bodies in perfect unison creating an engulfing visual feast that feels near-druggy. They pour on the SFX, and the ballet gets heated. The good guy and the bat-guy are head-to-head now, their target tossed helplessly between them like a poker chip, as all women were when this debuted. The swans are circling and twitching restlessly in a rising fever. All three of the main dancers are exquisite, with this untouchable liquid motion.

It ends. The bat-guy gets killed. I belatedly realise they were fighting. I think the peasant guy bodied him somehow. Not sure how. Not really relevant, because it’s super emotional, and they’ve shut down the lights so all you see are these amazing pared back costumes and the immaculately controlled limbs.

The curtain goes down. We applaud like crazy. Then up, and the cast have returned. Cool – we applaud some more. Then it goes down. We keep applauding! Then up again. There’s some guy in a suit! The curtain keeps going up and down, we keep applauding. It’s tiring and confusing. I think, in the end, we applauded for exactly the length of the show itself. Tradition, I suppose.

But you know what? There’s something in tradition. And these perfect, slender white people, they earned our applause. Their less slender white fans, they were right to applaud. I went to the ballet a cynic and came out nearly converted. Self-consciousness about my ass and all, I’d go again in a heartbeat.

* In my half hour career as an online fashion model I was once hauled in front of a senior figure and told in no uncertain terms that my ass lacked the required bulbousness for the role. I still carry that.

** Ballet, or at least its music, seems to have been considered a lower art at some point, so maybe there’s a kinship.

Until August 25

Photographed by Evan Li


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